Can Secondary Research Alone Produce CI?

August 11, 2016

One of the weaknesses in DIY and other internally produced CI is the lack of data from interviews, particularly elicitation interviews. Unfortunately, there are a lot of reasons why individuals employed by the end-user of the CI end up trying to generate CI from secondary and internal primary sources only.  Here are several of the most common:

Some firms have formal policies banning virtually all – or all – direct communications with competitors. The rationale for these policies is to avoid any future issues about anti-competitive activities, such a price-fixing or market allocation schemes. But this kind of rule stops even such harmless ploys as calling customer service and asking about the availability of a new product – which is its job to tell you about!

Most internal CI staff, and virtually all DIYers, have little or no real training in, and little real experience in, interviewing, much less in the vital area of elicitation interviews. That means they generally avoid interviews, or, if they attempt them, they do not do them very well.

The sales force cannot or will not communicate regularly with those needing or generating CI. Why? Because of the attitude that this “is not their job” and they can see no way that doing this will help them in doing their only job – which is to sell. That often cuts off one easy source of some external primary data.

Some internal CI staff, such as those with library science and related backgrounds, feel most comfortable in the world of secondary, rather than primary, research. They are very good there, but there is more to be found by primary research that they do not try to access.

That means that a lot of internally generated CI is based primarily, or wholly, on secondary research. Does that mean it is not really CI? No – well, maybe.

If this research generates actionable intelligence, and it is communicated as such, then it is CI. But it is necessarily limited. Secondary research is great – up to a point. It can help you (or whoever is doing it) to determine where the competition is and where it is coming from.

However, taking that research and trying to determine where the competition is going and what it plans to do will inevitably produce poor results over time. And the further into the future the end-users of CI want to peer, the less useful the CI produced based solely on secondary research will be.

That is because the data allowing your analysis to determine where the competition is going and what it is going to do – the most powerful kind of CI – rarely lies documents, newspaper articles, web pages, or Facebook pages. It is still in the minds of people. And the only way to get that data is to talk with outsiders. So, if you want to make sure that the CI that you produce, rely on, or both, is up to that task, you must do primary research in addition to solid secondary research to develop it. There are no other options.


Is Secondary Now Your Primary?

August 7, 2015

One of the trends driving the digital age is the ability to store and then access vast (and growing) amounts of data, including digitized publications, access to government filings, and more. For those of us doing competitive intelligence (CI) research, this is a welcome situation, as it expands the raw data that our secondary research allows us to delve into to develop intelligence. But this carries with it a problem.

A problem? Actually, two problems.

The first is becoming so overwhelmed with raw data so that an analyst cannot manage to review all of it. While we think of this as primarily a problem with governmental data sweeps, it is becoming more of an issue for those of us in CI.

The second is that there is a danger that those doing this research tend to drift away from doing primary research – that is, actually talking to people.

And talking to people, or elicitation interviews, is hard work. You have to identify who you want to speak with, which usually requires significant secondary research, then contact them. If you get through, you must then convince them to talk with you, in an interview where you have a very limited time to extract critical nuggets of data.

As those who do this a lot know, you have to identify 10-20 people to speak to, and from them, perhaps 2-3 will even speak to you. And of those, perhaps 1 in 5 or 1 in 10 will actually provide you with that nugget.

Hard work? Yes, which is why more and more CI analysts and CI DIYers do less and less of this[1]. They go after the low-hanging fruit because dealing with that takes up most of their time, possibly pretending that it takes all of their time. So they tend to minimize (or ignore) elicitation as a critical source of data. And that trend is growing.

But these elicitation interviews often produce the gold nuggets that make the difference between a generic look at a competitor and generating real, competitively important, insights.

And primary research is where you more often can find out what will be going on; secondary is where you usually find out what was and is going on.


[1] This does not even take into account the barriers created by employers who have policies which may bar talking with current or former employees of competitors. For those firms, elicitation is something that must be contracted out.

Secondary is not necessarily second rate

November 5, 2013

When we talk about research for competitive intelligence and other types of research, we tend to classify it into secondary research, or what some people call desk or library research, and primary, that is interview based, research. The unfortunate part of this terminology is that secondary somehow carries with it the inference that it is second rate, while primary is carrying the inference that it is somehow superior.

While primary certainly is critical, particularly to developing CI on issues like intentions and capabilities, secondary research is not only vital to prepare for your primary research, it is also vital in and of itself.

Let me give you an example of that. Some weeks ago Tom Clancy, the well-known author of techno-thrillers, passed away. For those not familiar with the genre, the techno-thriller includes as a major part of its presentation very detailed information on the use of and the capabilities of technology, such as what  technology systems can do, how information technology really operates, etc.

In Clancy’s case, he dealt with weapons, weapons systems, military tactics and military strategy. The story is told that following the release of his first big hit, The Hunt for Red October, Clancy was interviewed by representatives of US Naval Intelligence. Their concern was that he “obviously” had access to top-secret information that he drew upon when describing the capabilities of both US and Soviet war submarines. Clancy, then an insurance broker by trade, finally was able to convince US Naval Intelligence that he did not access to top-secret information to write his compellingly accurate book. Rather, so the story goes, Clancy told them that everything that was in the book, which was very accurate, he had located in the open source materials made available to him in the reading room at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.

So don’t sell secondary research short. And before you jump into your primary research, make sure you have completed your secondary research.

Going to the source

July 3, 2013


One way you look for data for competitive intelligence, when you’re doing your own research, is to visualize the data as something that is flowing, like a stream. You want to figure out where it originated, and where it moves. Then you try to figure out where is a good place to intercept some or all of that data.

One thing that is often overlooked is going directly to the source of the data. In most cases, that is your competitor, which of course, can cause problems. Before you even think of doing this, check to see if your company has a policy against contacting competitors. You’d be surprised how many corporations, particularly those that it been in business for 75 or more years, have policies dealing with this. They tend to come out of misadventures with antitrust authorities in the past.

Assuming that your company has no policy against you contacting a competitor, think out whether or not you should do so. Who would you call there? What would you ask for? What would you say when someone asks who are you and why are you calling? The answer the latter one is — the truth. You are not a “student calling to research a paper”, you are not a hassled customer calling about a bill. Now you don’t have to volunteer information, but do not lie.

Now you probably can’t pick up the phone and call your opposite number, say a product manager. We can, and do, but that is another story. What you can do is look at your competitor and find out where your competitor faces the public. More specifically, does it have a consumer information line, or a place on its website allowing people to ask questions? If so, exploit these. These people are there to provide information to the public, usually customers or shareholders or potential customers, and there is no reason not to at least ask. The worst they can say is “no”.

Let me give you one quick example. Several years ago, we were developing intelligence for client on the possible rollout of a new product. It happened to be food, but that is not really that important. We found out that the product was being offered in another city and wanted to figure out if the company was positioning itself for a national or regional roll-out. Our background research indicated it was likely that the company was positioning for a national rollout, but to confirm that we called the consumer help line. We simply said we had heard about this new product, that we lived in Pennsylvania, which is true, and that we wanted to know when it might be available here. The individual in the help center, being helpful, asked that we wait for a moment while she checked. She came back in a moment and said “I have answer for you. It appears that we are rolling the product out on a national basis and we expect it will be available in Pennsylvania in about 6 to 8 weeks.” I said, “Thank you very much.” By the way, I actually went out and bought the product when it showed up here. It was pretty good.

My point is never ignore the obvious – the source.

Near is good (Part 2)

September 25, 2012


For all that we talk about doing research to develop competitive intelligence, rarely, if ever, do we or others talk about where and how to start.

There are a couple of simple rules involving doing this.  First, start with secondary research, that is, the reading, before the primary research, the interviewing.  The reason?  Secondary research not only brings you up to speed on your subject matter, it brings you identification of and information on potential interview targets.

But beyond that?  Frankly, it probably doesn’t make much difference when you start, so the easiest thing to do is to start with that which is closest at hand.  Let me give you an illustration.

We were working with a client that was looking into products that used energy-efficient technology in a nontraditional market niche.  After completing our secondary research, we found that there were a number of companies, large and small, that sold a similar, but not identical, product to an overlapping market.  Sorry to be so vague, but client confidentiality is critical.

One of those companies was a small chain that had an outlet nearby.  Now we were pretty certain that outlet did not carry the product in question, but we had an existing relationship with the outlet, as  customers.  So we started our research there.  Now, as we fully expected, the local outlet had no information for us, but cheerfully gave us a reference upstream within the business, a specific individual at headquarters, who could help us.  We now not only had a live interview target, we had an introduction to that target, a fact which, if you have not learned already, makes getting access and completing an interview many, many times easier.

The moral – start somewhere close at hand, and keep track of your research.  Once your secondary research, and later your primary research, brings you back to sources that you have already checked into or interviewed (or have declined to interview), you should feel comfortable that your research is at an end.  From there begin analysis to develop truly proactive competitive intelligence.

Am I Done Yet?

July 23, 2012

I’ve posted a couple of notes on how to get started, but the question that often arises is when should I finish?

Well, it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, when you come to the due date or the decision date, you are done.  Hopefully, you were better than that in planning your research and can schedule your analysis rather than trying to beat the shot clock.

Plan to allow as much as one-third of your available time for analysis.  I know that sounds like a lot, but it is not.  Now, admittedly you’re doing some analysis as you go along, but just don’t finish your research, open up Word, and start typing.

A more disciplined approach is to evaluate where you are and where you are going.  As Carolyn & I have said elsewhere (shameless plug – Proactive Intelligence: the Successful Executive’s Guide to Competitive Intelligence), the best way to go is to get your secondary research out of the way first.  Once you get this out of the way, you get oriented, and most importantly, you pick up ideas of people and organizations to contact.  Whether this list is in your mind or in hard copy notes is not really important. But as you get to the end of your primary research, always remembering to ask everyone you spoken to with if they can suggest someone else you can get information from, consider slowing down and then stopping if your last contacts are merely sending you back to people or places you have contacted, or at least considered contacting.

This is called “closing the loop”, or less elegantly “chasing your tail”.  Basically, when existing research simply turns you around and sends you back to research you’ve already done (or rejected), it’s time to quit.  Now sit down, think it through, that is, analyze, and start using, proactively, your new competitive intelligence.